With hundreds of millions people worldwide suffering from severe food insecurity, the current level of effort is not anywhere near enough to end malnutrition in the next decade, with a need to focus on increasing efforts in providing access to nutritious food. Poor nutrition in children in particular drives a cyclical relationship between malnutrition and poverty over generations. Do some of the latest innovations in Agricultural technology represent new opportunities and ways to tackle these issues, both today and in the long run?
The extent of malnutrition
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines someone as food insecure when they lack regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth & development and an active healthy life. This may be due to unavailability of food or a lack of resources to obtain food. Prior to COVID-19 there were estimated to be over 600 million people worldwide who are severely food insecure, meaning they regularly suffer days without food, with the numbers with mild or moderate food insecurity growing to the billions.
These figures will have grown to even higher levels over the last 2 years as a result of COVID-19, with food supply disruptions and the lack of income due to the loss of livelihoods meaning many more people have been facing increased difficulties to access food. Access to nutritious food in particular is a worsening problem, with healthy diets 5 times more expensive than diets that meet only dietary energy needs through staple foods, these diets are unaffordable to many people, especially the poor, all over the globe.
As the world works towards the UN Sustainable Development Goal for 2030 to ‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’ FAO research shows that, even without the impact of COVID-19, the current level of effort is not anywhere near enough to end malnutrition in the next decade. It indicates we can still succeed but only by ensuring all people’s access not only to food, but to nutritious foods that make up a healthy diet.
Nutrition and education outcomes
This necessity for nutritious food is most acute in children, not only for the irreversible impacts on their growth but for the significant impact it can have on their education outcomes and potential for future earnings in order to break out of a cycle of poverty and hunger. This lack of nutrition results in an estimated 180 million young children being stunted and suffering irreversible damage to their development a year, limiting their ability to learn and to grow.
This seriously affects their chances of earning a good living so they can support themselves and their families as they get older. In fact, the World Bank estimates that on average individuals suffering from malnutrition lose 10 percent of their potential lifetime earnings.
Tackling the issue at a local level
In Singapore, despite being a relatively food secure nation, 10% of households still experience food insecurity at least once a year. As a nation, it is a great example of how investments in emerging agricultural technology in the private sector can spur on related innovation more suitable to tackling food insecurity in poorer communities – looking not only to improve access to nutritious food but to do so sustainably.
Government funding for its 30 by 30 campaign – to produce 30% of its nutritional needs locally and sustainably by 2030 – has seen an explosion of urban farming in Singapore, using modern systems to sustainably grow food anywhere from rooftops to shipping containers. Charities like Free Food For All (FFFA) have been quick to look to these increasingly available and affordable technologies like hydroponic systems, which enable the controlled growth of fruit and vegetables with minimal water consumption.
They are using these to empower families most at risk of food insecurity to be able to provide nutritious food for themselves and reduce their reliance on donations and/or diets of tinned foods and staples like rice and noodles.
FFFA have begun to achieve this by providing clients with access to genetically engineered ‘super nutritious’ rice and ‘impossible’ meat substitutes as well as rolling out hydroponic systems for communal access in some of the most in need housing blocks in Singapore. In addition to requiring a relatively low supply of water and fertilisers, the vegetables produced by these systems have been shown to have significantly higher nutritional value than those imported into Singapore.
This is not only providing increased access to food for those that are food insecure, but it also provides food that they want to consume – for adults this is food without the stigma of being food the rich don’t want, as many food donations are, and even more importantly for children it is food they can connect to and be excited by as they see them grow locally.
Expanding to developing nations
As the theory starts being put into practice, time will tell over the coming years whether these solutions are successful in scaling. Today, costs remain too high for this to be a sustainable solution without charitable intervention, but as with most technologies these should continue to fall as the technologies develop and become more widespread.
Singapore is fortunate to have a well developed infrastructure and political stability, with government policy that is supportive of modernised and localised food systems, making it a perfect early adopter. The hope is that proven application in Singapore can be learnt from and expanded to the wider Asia-Pacific region and beyond to areas where the severity of food insecurity is much greater and the impact on global hunger levels can be significant.
By Arian Ataie
Arian has been a volunteer at Free Food For All since 2022 and is also Associate Director, IB COO Business Management at UBS.